OPM’s telework guidance is thorough and surprisingly progressive

The Office of Personnel Management’s June 23 guidance on telework provides a thorough Q&A that addresses telework, remote work and the pay implications of both. It does not break new ground on pay, but does include a remarkably progressive position that I applaud OPM for staking out. More on that later in this post.

One of the clearest distinctions that OPM addresses is the difference in telework and remote work. As OPM makes clear, they are completely different and choosing one or the other has significant implications for agencies and workers.

Telework is the traditional work-from-home arrangement many agencies and employees have used for years. With the agency’s approval, the employee works from home some days and may be required to be in the office on others. Locality pay is determined based on the employee’s official duty station. That means someone who works for an office in D.C. gets paid the D.C. locality rate. Agencies can decide how many days of telework are appropriate, and may revoke the arrangement if needed due to business reasons or employee issues. Many of the processes for telework are typically subject to collective bargaining in agencies where employees are represented by a union.

OPM reiterates the idea that telework can be situational and such occasional telework may require approval every time the employee teleworks. Routine telework is a recurring arrangement where “employees typically telework on some days and work at their agency worksite on other days during each pay period. They must obtain managerial approval for the schedule (and any modifications to it), but do not need to obtain additional separate approval for each day they telework.” They also make it clear that telework is not an entitlement, saying “telework is a strategic management tool and workplace flexibility established to facilitate the accomplishment of work, while balancing the needs of the workforce.”

In addition to telework, OPM discusses remote work, where an employee agrees to work from home or another location. OPM describes it as “a special type of alternative work arrangement by which an employee is scheduled to perform work within or outside the local commuting area of an agency worksite and is not expected to report to an agency worksite on a regular and recurring basis.”

There are implications of both remote work and telework that should be considered before entering into an agreement to do either. For example, employees with a signed telework agreement are typically required to work when their office is closed due to weather conditions (such as snow days in the National Capital Region). Remote work may also have pay implications. Locality pay is determined based upon an employee’s official duty station. As OPM makes clear, an employee who works remotely in a different locality area is paid using the pay table for that remote work location. If your agency is based in D.C. and you work in Topeka, you will be paid the Topeka locality rate.

Agencies that agree to remote work should also pay for the cost of a computer and other resources that are needed when they advertise positions as being eligible for remote work. They are not required, however, to pay relocation expense if they approve an employee request to work remotely in a different commuting area. The agency may find itself on the hook for those expenses if they decide to revoke the remote work agreement.

Remote work has enough complexities that OPM plans to issue more detailed policy guidance, saying “OPM will be publishing a Remote Work Guide to further explain the implications, considerations, and strategies for the appropriate use of remote work.”

The most progressive idea in OPM’s guidance covers child care and telework. At the height of the pandemic we know there were employees who were working and caring for children at the same time. When I commented on that in an interview on National Public Radio, quite a few people said I was wrong – that it did not happen and it was a violation of policy. The reality is that it did happen. In the midst of a pandemic when people were on lockdown, travel was limited, schools were conducting classes virtually, and child care facilities were closed, there were a lot of people who had no child care available and were faced with the choice of taking all of their leave, leave without pay, or just making the best of it and working and caring for children.

In a surprisingly progressive move, OPM put bureaucracy aside, recognized that situation and addressed it in their guidance. They said “An agency that has a general bar on teleworking when there are young children or other persons requiring care and supervision by the employee in the home should reevaluate that policy in light of its experience during the pandemic.”

They went on to say ”In many instances, these policies assume a rigid adherence to specific work hours. Agencies may want to consider offering teleworking employees with dependent care responsibilities a maxiflex work schedule, which is a type of flexible work schedule (FWS) that, when combined with telework, provides the most flexibility to employees who need to address the dual demands of work and caregiving, as well as other personal responsibilities. Providing teleworking employees with flexibility concerning their hours of work may allow them to meet the obligations of their job while teleworking even while also having child care or other family- related responsibilities. Where the agency mission requires more rigid work schedules (for example, where coverage of specific customer service shifts is required), agencies may choose to adjust their policies to allow telework on an exceptions basis, such as when normal caregivers are not available (due to a short-term illness or school closure). Under such an exception policy, a teleworking employee would be expected to account for work and non-work hours during their tour of duty and take appropriate leave (paid or unpaid) to account for time spent away from normal work-related duties (e.g., to care for small children).”

The pandemic has shattered much of the management mythology regarding telework and remote work. Managers who refused to admit that telework can work for many jobs had to ask those same workers to carry out the agency’s mission from home for an extended period. They learned where it really can work, and what accommodations must be made to make it work. They also learned where telework is not ideal. OPM’s embrace of maxiflex as a tool for making work and child care arrangements more flexible is a great step in making telework available to more people and offering a benefit that many employees are demanding. It has the potential to make the federal government a more reasonable employer in a labor market that is becoming far more competitive. That is a good thing.

Jeff Neal authors the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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